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Mohawk historian opens the window on his people’s story

AKWESASNE, N.Y. – When Darren Bonaparte held his first son in his arms he thought, “It’s up to me to teach this child what he needs to know.”

That fatherly instinct was quickly followed by another thought: “Well, what do I know? What can I teach this child, and who am I? I really need to know who our people are.”

Those thoughts led Bonaparte, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and author of “A Lily Among Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Kateri Tekahkwi:tha,” on a quest to research and write a complete history of the Mohawk Nation from first contact with the Europeans to the present.

“I’m trying to draw attention to an amazing story that happened in everybody’s backyard and they don’t even realize it. We have an epic history and as I’m writing books and publishing them, I’m really just opening a window into it. I don’t think I’m being biased just because I am a Mohawk and this is just my own nationalistic pride. I see this story as America’s real story.”

Bonaparte is also an artist, storyteller, teacher and artisan who makes reproductions of wampum belts and other historic Haudenosaunee items.

He is also the creator and webmaster of The Wampum Chronicles, a massive repository of historical and cultural essays, primary documents, drawings, photos, links and more.

As passionate as he is about his people’s story, it seems as though Bonaparte didn’t choose to become the Mohawk historian; rather, the role chose him through a convergence of events.

In 1990, Akwesasne had a huge internal conflict over casino gambling that traumatized the community and prompted him toward history.

“I wanted to understand the historical origins of the conflict, and at the same time my son was born, so all of these factors just kind of came together and created an armchair Mohawk historian, and so I began to do the research.”

Around the same time, Bonaparte witnessed a renaissance of Iroquois consciousness and culture with people conducting ceremonies, revitalizing songs, dances and language.

“I thought ‘what can I contribute to this?’ What I saw was the history was really weak. I was assigned a task to write a little history brochure by one of the council here and it’s been 15 to 20 years now that I’ve just been enamored with this amazing little nation that I happened to be born into and its incredible story, and the dramatic and larger than life individuals that lived here.”

His first book, “Creation and Confederacy: The Living History of the Iroquois,” was published in 2006. He is already at work on the third volume – a history of the 18th century and the story of Lt. Col. Louis Cook, a monumental Mohawk warrior who fought in the French and Indian War, in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, and in the War of 1812.

“My first book was an investigation into our creation story and the legend of the Peacemaker. It kind of encouraged me to go even further so the second book has a lot more information, and illustrations and depth. To me, you write a book as if it’s going to be your last one so you cram as much in there as possible.”

“A Lily Among Thorns,” a biography of the young Mohawk woman who is on her way toward canonization by the Catholic Church, gave Bonaparte the opportunity to delve into 17th century history, a time of tumultuous change.

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“I’m trying to tell her story in its proper context of the Mohawk people. She’s a very significant individual at a very specific time when we were undergoing the most radical changes with Europeans coming into our territory. I don’t see it as just a military tide rolling over the land. It was done a lot through negotiation and subtle things, and the next thing you know the ball game is completely changed and the Mohawk people found themselves having to maneuver between these colonists that were new players on the landscape,” Bonaparte said.

A Mohawk legend called the Serpents of Silver and Gold emblematizes the struggle.

“It talks about these little serpents that were found by hunters that eventually grew so big that they outgrew their little pens and ravaged the village and then took off, and when they came back they were a monstrous size. And so that’s kind of the parallel between the colonies and our own territories,” Bonaparte said.

The book is packed with long quotations from primary 17th century European writers – a source of endless detail about indigenous life.

“I’m a big fan of those old sources even though they’re patently racist and make you cringe. If you go into them reading for clues and cultural information you can learn a great deal. And I think our people need to have access to those original documents,” Bonaparte said.

There is a certain irony in the fact that 17th century Europeans’ writing is yielding so much information for 21st century Indian scholars.

“They never thought we’d get to the point where we could read what they wrote. They thought they were presiding over a vanishing race and their writings would one day be a testament to the failed but noble enterprise of saving our souls. “Well, we’re still here even though our souls weren’t saved,” Bonaparte said cheerfully.

But the old writings also give up information about how Mohawk people responded to the changes foisted upon them.

“They talk a lot about all these factions – some that moved ahead with all the changes that were going on, some that said, no, let’s go back to our old ways, let’s stay traditional. That’s all still going on today. We have the Longhouse, the traditional people, and we have Catholic Mohawks and Protestant Mohawks and so there are all these dialogues about what is the way to go, and it also has a lot to do with the political situation and having the U.S. south of us and Canada north of us,” Bonaparte said.

On the night that Bonaparte spoke to Indian Country Today, hundreds of Mohawks and their supporters gathered on Kahwehnoke, Cornwall Island, to peacefully protest against new border policies that would put armed Canadian customs agents on Mohawk land.

“So we’re still tied between the Serpents of Silver and Gold,” Bonaparte said.

But the next day, he was scheduled to give a living history presentation to a group of non-Native school children, an activity he finds exhilarating.

“I dress up in period clothing of the 1700s. I go in and give them a crash course in our history and it’s a bit overwhelming. I want them to look beyond the negative things they see about Akwesasne in the newspapers and on their TV screens. I want that one little kid someday when he’s an elder to say, ‘Yeah, some Mohawk guy came to my school when I was a kid and he turned our world upside down and I never forgot that.’

“I want to be that old Indian whose name he doesn’t remember that opened his mind to a whole different world.”